Parents sacrifice for their party of 11
Things could get hectic in a household of 11 people when there are seven children with disabilities, five who haven’t reached their sixth birthday, four with glasses or hearing aids, three in diapers, two in their teens and one adult who brings home a paycheck.
Jeremy and Jessica Collier lead the large brood and admit life has its share of challenges. Still, the Caroline County couple have no complaints.
From the time they first dated—when she was 15 and he was 16—they felt destined to have a large family, made up of biological and adopted children.
“This is what we wanted,” the father said. “We feel like we’re following God’s will, and there’s a sense of peace that comes with that.”
As dads around the nation celebrate their special day, few have more kids who call them “Daddy” than 37-year-old Jeremy Collier.
He and his wife, who’s 36, have two biological sons, Nathan and Noah, who are 16 and 14. The couple tried to have more children after the boys came along, but were diagnosed with secondary infertility.
They couldn’t adopt from China until one of them had turned 30. When orphanages finally opened their doors to them, the Colliers walked through—and kept going back for more.
They’ve adopted seven children in 4 years. All have special needs, ranging from cerebral palsy to dwarfism, from vision and brain abnormalities to conditions that affect the spine or limbs.
The Colliers are fiercely protective and asked that the children not be identified by their disabilities.
“They’ve been through enough already,” the dad said. “They don’t need to be put in another category, they’re in our category.”
The Colliers don’t know how many more children they’ll bring home, but believe they have at least two more daughters in China. They plan to go back by December to get Vivienne, 2, and Esther, who’s 1.
The average American household had 2.58 people in 2010, according to the U.S. Census. Because the Colliers are above-average in that respect, they tend to get a lot of looks out in public.
They try to go everywhere as a family, just as they did when it was just the four of them. If they’re shopping, at the doctor’s office or visiting a local park near their home, they travel en masse.
The mom said she feels like a walking billboard for adoption or that she and her brood are automatically labeled as different.
She’s not comfortable with the stares, but she’s gotten more used to them. She tells the kids to smile and wave whenever the gawking begins.
The Colliers are incredibly private people and “really boring,” she said. They agreed to be featured in a story to let others know they’re just like everybody else.
“We’re regular people,” she said.
“As regular as the day is long,” he added.
They also hoped their story would glorify God and inspire others to take the leap of faith to adopt.
One of the first questions people with one or two kids ask of those with five times that many is how they can afford it.
The Colliers say it comes down to lifestyle choices.
They’ve easily spent $150,000 on adoption fees, evaluations and travel. They’ve gone into debt to expand their family. They’ve taken out loans, charged expenses on their credit cards and dipped into his retirement savings.
He’s a sales representative with a national paint company.
They’ve never asked anyone for help, and they don’t maintain an adoption website seeking donations.
They say the divine will that guides them also has helped pay their way. They believe it will continue, no matter how many times they adopt.
“It’s not a numbers thing with us,” the dad said. “It’s an obedience thing. We believe God funds what he favors.”
Twice and without any provocation, people have given the Colliers a check for $10,000.
One was a close friend; the other, a family from Ohio the couple had just met in China.
In addition to going into debt—like other families might for vehicle payments—the Colliers skimp on everything. She gets her hair cut once a year; he shaves his head and does buzz-cuts on a few of the boys.
They don’t eat out or take vacations. They apply their income-tax refunds to adoption expenses.
She doesn’t have expensive handbags or go to Starbucks.
She drives a large van—they’ll need a bigger one when the next two kids come home—and he uses a company car. They shop at thrift stores, buy in bulk and purchase clothes when they’re out of season.
Two months ago, the Colliers stocked up on winter coats the kids will need next year.
“When the kids come to us, they literally come with the shirts on their backs, and that’s it,” the mom said.
The biggest change to their lifestyle was one that Jeremy Collier initially resisted.
‘HEARTS WERE CHANGED’
When their teenagers were boys, the Colliers lived in a Spotsylvania County subdivision in a 4,000-square-foot house both adults described as their dream home.
They had all the toys that went with it: nice cars and a boat, a trampoline, deck and theater room.
When the couple first decided to adopt, they asked for twin girls and were quickly approved.
But as the Colliers thought about their request, they “didn’t feel it was the direction God was leading them,” she said.
They started looking at the list of children with medical needs. They don’t believe it was a coincidence that the first orphanages they visited were filled with images they couldn’t forget.
They saw youngsters strapped to chairs and cribs. They walked by babies whose fragile skulls were flattened because they’d been kept in the same position too long.
They were overpowered by the smell of urine and the fact they were in a building filled with children but didn’t hear a single sound.
The Colliers came home from their first trip to China in December 2009 with Grace, then 3.
“Our hearts were changed,” her father said.
The mother believed they’d been shown samples of suffering—of babies starving and children rooting through garbage for food—so they would do something about it. She was ready to give up their dream house to make a home for children who needed it the most.
“The Lord put us on this path, not so we could come back home and live an extravagant lifestyle in a comfortable neighborhood,” she said.
It took him a little longer to accept the plan. He really wanted to keep the house.
But on the trip to get Grace, who’s now a smiling and kind-hearted 7-year-old, the couple met Eli. He’s the oldest of “the littles,” the term that describes everyone but the two teenagers, but smaller than his siblings.
Jeremy Collier, especially, couldn’t get the picture of the little guy out of his head—or heart.
After a few nights of waking up in a cold sweat and seeing Eli’s face, the father agreed to downsize.
His firstborn, Nathan, agrees with the path his parents have taken.
“Every single one of them needs to be here,” Nathan said. “If any one of them wasn’t here, it wouldn’t feel right.”
‘THESE PRICELESS LIVES’
The Colliers sold their dream home, along with most of their possessions, and haven’t looked back. They lived in a rental home until they found a six-bedroom house that allowed them to juggle their more modest mortgage along with adoption expenses.
Their home, in a Caroline subdivision, is somewhat sparsely decorated. There’s little on the walls besides black-and-white photos of youngsters.
But it’s filled with the activity of children.
“We’ve struggled, we’ve had challenges, we have daily challenges,” she said.
“But we’ve just managed to make it work,” he added. “We’re not afraid to go into debt for these lives, these priceless lives.”
Nathan, 16, says he’s learned so much about kids, he’d like to work in pediatrics, maybe as a therapist.
Noah, 14, also enjoys his younger siblings but can’t stand to be in the room with a dirty diaper. He plans to join the military.
Eli, 8, is shy until he gets to know people, then becomes the noisiest kid in the room. He loves trivia about presidents.
Grace, 7, is “sweet, affectionate and so well-behaved,” her mother said. Grace, Eli and Penelope go to public schools.
Landon, 5, likes things neat, tidy and organized. He’s the “laundry runner,” the one who takes each child’s clothes to the correct bedroom.
Penelope, 4, wakes up with a smile on her face. She can’t walk so her dad built her the “Poppy chair,” a small wooden wheelbarrow-type contraption with large wheels on the side, which she rolls to get around.
Spencer, 4, growled, scratched and kicked “when he came to us, but now he’s the most lovable child,” his mom said. He loves to dance, and his dad is amazed that he’s got rhythm.
Adaline, 3, loves to name colors and yellow is her favorite. She cries out at times because she’s just learning to talk, and her mom regularly encourages her to “use your words, use your nice words.”
Preston, 3, runs “full throttle all the time,” his dad said. He loves to bounce, jump and run, and he starts singing to his brothers the moment he wakes up, his parents said.
Here are some other interesting details about Jeremy and Jessica Collier and their family.
Dad’s handiwork is seen throughout the house. He built a picnic table for the kitchen because he couldn’t find one large enough. He added a reading nook to the area where kids 3 and up can climb up into a bunk and read or listen to music. Then, there’s the “Poppy chair,” a wooden wheelbarrow-type contraption he made for Penelope, who can’t walk.
Mom’s in charge: She home-schools four of the younger children and both teens, so organization is at the top of her list. So is discipline and order, whether the kids are playing at the park or eating a snack at the table. “If not, there’d be peanut butter all over the walls,” she said.
What makes them giddy? Diapers and wipes on sale. They have three in diapers now; when the two younger children join them later this year, they’ll have five.
Grocery bills average about $700 a month. Three family members are vegans, including the mom, so the group eats a lot of pasta, noodles and vegetables. Cereal, bread and milk are their biggest staples.
“We go through a box of Cheerios on Sunday morning, just packing dry bags for snacks,” he said.
Got bananas? Mom stocks up twice a month on big shopping trips, then dad picks up items as needed throughout the week. “Our banana consumption is always questioned,” he said, adding he usually buys about eight bunches at a time.
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425 | firstname.lastname@example.org